Caleb Porter coached his last game for the Akron Zips last Sunday. His team crashed out of the NCAA Tournament in the third round, courtesy of that cruel lottery that is the penalty shootout after a hard-fought draw with Creighton. In days, Porter will take the reins of the Portland Timbers, his first MLS coaching job, in what seems to be a new beginning for a franchise who slogged their way through a miserable 2012 season. Head coach John Spencer was fired, fans turned on his replacement, the owner turned on the fans, and the players threw gasoline on the fire by, among many other things, futilely not winning a road game until their final chance to do so of the season. It was bad. But with Porter primed to take control, the sun could again be rising on the Rose City. A blank canvas for the 2013 season lies ahead. Actually, not so fast. Gavin Wilkinson is still employed by Merritt Paulson.
I'm excited about Caleb Porter. He's young, energetic, innovative, and armed with a brilliant coaching resume from his time in college soccer. I think Porter can make good things happen. But I'm not sure he'll have the chance.
Merritt Paulson had ample opportunity to fire Gavin Wilkinson last year. John Spencer was swept out of town, along with most of his coaching staff. Firing GM Wilkinson, the architect of the blithering Timbers team that was so hard to watch and fell so very short of the most subdued expectations last year, seemed like a natural step. Out with the old, failed regime, in with the new. But if anything, Wilkinson's power grew in his darkest hour last year. He was appointed interim coach after Spencer was fired – with little to no success – and then led the Timbers through the first stage of their rebuilding process with shocking carte blanch for a man with his dismal pedigree.
Wilkinson incurred the vocal wrath of the Timbers Army for his poignantly inept leadership of the club, and saw Paulson fiercely defend him and jump protectively to his defense many times, most notably when Paulson engaged in a Twitter war with fans who spoke out against Wilkinson. After Spencer was fired last year, Wilkinson was the head coach, GM, and man who obviously had and has the ear of the owner – judge, jury, and executioner. It's possibly unprecedented in major professional sports that a man who had performed so badly in his job would be given rapidly and dangerously increasing power, despite the fact that the person had zero support among fans and not much more among the players.
A few of Wilkinson's greatest hits? Trading Adam Moffat, a key component of MLS Cup finalist Houston for next to nothing after not playing him at all in summer 2011; signing an out-of-shape, uninterested, out-of-sorts Kris Boyd for a small fortune; signing and trading for players like Mike Chabala and Jorge Perlaza that can't even make the team at other clubs in the league; using the Timbers top spot the allocation for returning US players to pick up Kenny Cooper, forgoing Jay DeMerit, Freddy Adu, Benny Feilhaber and so on, and then building a tactical system that in no way fit Cooper, and saw him traded a year later – of course Cooper was one of the most prolific goal-scorers in MLS this year with the right system in New York. Wilkinson's prized DP Jose Adolfo Valencia was hurt when the Timbers signed him, then landed in jail for hitting his girlfriend, not starting a single MLS game.
Wilkinson knew the Timbers had to acquire a full-back or two last offseason, but he didn't sign any full-backs, which left the team scrambling midseason and coming up with disasters such as Kosuke Kimura and Steven Smith. Wilkinson let the Timbers’ forward position slide; the team had no backup plan if Kris Boyd didn't work out or was injured, a distinct possibility considering foreign players often have a difficult time transitioning to MLS in their first season. Bright Dike, who gives great effort but isn't skilled enough for an MLS bench, was plan B. Inexcusable.
The effects of the Wilkinson regime were right in front of our eyes last season. What does Merritt Paulson see in Gavin that we can't? What hidden treasure does Merritt know about? What character trait of Wilkinson's does he understand that we don't? I don't know the answers. I would assume that Paulson and Wilkinson are good friends, but Merritt knows this is a business, and he certainly wants to win, so he wouldn't let that get in the way of firing him. You would think.
Possibly Paulson is a firm believer in Wilkinson's abilities, a difficult feat to accomplish, but one surely made easier if the man himself is there telling you his plans each and every day. Still, the on-field results haven't been good enough. I can't say why Paulson is so committed to his GM. But one thing is clear: Wilkinson is Merritt's guy. How that will transcend to the Porter era at Jeld-Wen Field is anyone's guess.
It is likely that Wilkinson will remain in sole control of personnel decisions and form the Timbers roster to his liking the way he has the last two years. If that's the case, Porter can only do so much. He needs his players to implement his vision, and the more input he can have the roster the better. There's only so much a coach can do with his GM's players.
I want to believe that Wilkinson will take a backseat to Porter, recognize that he's failed in his time, and let another guy have a shot to general the Timbers’ ship. I'm not sure Gavin will get out of the way. I don't think that's how the power structure is in the club. Having Wilkinson and Porter strike up a harmonious working relationship will be the x-factor to the Timbers’ 2013 season. If Gavin is running the club from the front office, and the manager is just a man to hand in the team-sheet, it won't be hard to sack him, as we've seen starkly at Chelsea last week.
I'm ready for this MLS offseason to commence. I’m ready to get on with the new era. Wilkinson has obviously failed. Time to move on. If Gavin himself can see that, this team will move forward quickly. If it's more of the same in 2013, we could be heading for rock bottom that wasn't experienced even in 2012. As always, Gavin Wilkinson holds the keys to the Timbers’ future, the keys given to him by Merritt Paulson. So all we can do is close our eyes … and hope for the best.